In a loud arena in Mexico, there is a man with a pink mohawk wearing wrestling trunks that resemble a skirt, and a t-shirt that says “KISS ME” in sparkly letters. He sashays and twirls and smiles provocatively and stymies his opponents, and the crowd chants his name and cheers his every maneuver. He is Máximo Sexy, an exótico. And he is beloved.
Lucha Libre, in addition to its traditional babyface and heel dynamic (known in Mexico as técnicos and rudos, respectively,) has a third “alignment”: The exótico. Usually a performer in drag, or at least in something that subverts gender norms in some way, the exótico has classically been used as a foil in the hyper-masculine world of lucha libre. The style originated back in the 1940s, and since then has generally been relegated to undercard comedy matches. In these moments, the exótico has often been a shockingly problematic parody of stereotypical homosexual behavior: Lecherously, desperately clutching at the manhood of their opponent, taking any opportunity to steal a kiss, showing hyper-exaggerated fear in a world dominated by wide-eyed courage. The audience laughs and eggs the performers on. They want the rudo to be kissed or pinned, as if doing so offers up proof that he is somehow less of a man because of the outcome.
Until the 1980s, many exótico performers were outspoken in saying that portraying an exótico was not a reflection of their own sexuality, as if a crowd even thinking they were gay was in some way an affront to their manhood. Recently, these attitudes have softened considerably, and famed luchadors like Baby Sharon and Cassandro have even come out as gay. Cassandro especially has been forthcoming in his own journey, and his belief that portraying himself as an exótico was a way to take ownership of his sexuality in a professional sense—that to achieve success in a field as celebrated and steeped in tradition as lucha represented an upward mobility that would be less available for an out man in a culture so socially conservative.
While Cassandro has paved the way for many modern exóticos, gaining fame in both the United States and Mexico, it is Máximo Sexy that has truly transcended the genre. While perhaps not as flamboyant as some of his counterparts, he nevertheless performs as a character that is clearly fluid with his gender and sexuality. After complex exchanges on the mat, he will twirl toward a serious opponent with a wink and a smile. He will use his comfort with his own sexuality to his advantage, escaping holds with sensual rubs and amorous looks.
Of course, one his signature moves bares mention: Máximo Sexy pins men of all sizes and abilities with a kiss on the mouth. It is often the climax of a swift series of counters, with two men blocking punches and kicks like a kung-fu movie that suddenly becomes a romantic comedy. Máximo grasps another man by the face, or by the mask, and without comment or caution punches them with his lips. They inevitably lay prone, staring up into the lights, the kiss stirring up a three-second existential crisis on their own sexuality and masculinity. The crowd goes wild, they chant “Beso! Beso!” and they leap with joy when Máximo has his hand raised by the official.
All of this would be pretty well-worn territory, but Máximo has managed to capture the hearts and minds of the fans in a totally different way than previous exóticos. Not a comedic heel like many of his brethren, Máximo is one of the main técnicos in CMLL, the oldest and longest-running wrestling company in the world. He is often a major part of ongoing storylines, having well-regarded recent feuds against high profile rudos such as Rush, Hechicero and Kamaitachi. While there is still plenty of time for his traditionally exótico spots and antics, Máximo is able to work in a more serious fashion, and subsequently garners almost unending sympathy from the Arena Mexico crowds. They chant his name, they implore him to keep fighting, they cheer him to victory. This connection with the crowd has not only given him a tremendous run of success in apuestas matches—matches in which Máximo bets his hair in exchange for his opponents mask—but also something that makes him wholly unique amongst exóticos: Since January of 2015, Máximo Sexy has been the reigning Heavyweight Champion of CMLL, the first exótico to ever hold the belt.
Of course, this is professional wrestling, so there are aspects of Máximo and the exótico culture that are still inherently touchy and problematic. As a nominally heterosexual male, is Máximo exploiting queer culture, much like similar whitewashing controversies in film and television? Is Máximo’s success as an exótico, despite his real life heterosexuality, a sad reminder of the behind-the-scenes culture within wrestling? Is the presence of exóticos on a show, even in a position of power and success, always going to present gay or transgender athletes as nothing more than a compelling sideshow? Is a kiss being used as an offensive maneuver a glorification of sexual assault? These are questions that are valid, and we should keep discussing them. It is well within the realm of possibility that these tropes and characterizations will always be damaging, and never truly helpful for social acceptance and change.
There may be no true way to quantify Máximo’s impact on fandom and acceptance. We don’t have evidence beyond the anecdotal. Instead, we must satiate ourselves with the endless parade of crowd shots from his matches, with enraptured and smiling people of all ages, hoping and calling for him to kiss another man into a sweet and temporary oblivion. There are young people at home, unsure of their place, unsure of their chance of acceptance in a culture and a world stacked against them. We must hope that in these crowd shots, they perhaps find some solace, some small sliver of light guiding them toward a tomorrow full of possibility.
JR Goldberg is a Clevelander living in Philadelphia. Punk rock, pro wrestling and board games. You can follow him on twitter @wrestlingbubble.